Twitter for Writers (a Sort-of-Outsider’s Perspective) and Promisses No. 3: What to Do with Your Body Parts

Twitter_Logo_by_MegachixSo I started this blog as a way to get thoughts out of my head that weren’t strictly about baseball. It’s been slow going, largely because I have this whole life and everything, but I’m determined to get into it eventually.

The great thing, though, is that I have a very good friend who was already pretty well entrenched in this community of writers, which has allowed me to quickly meet some great folks. I look forward to reading Emmie Mears and Amber West‘s and Jenny Hansen‘s blogs as often as they’re updated, to name a few, and they’re each great people to interact with on Facebook and Twitter besides.

But the referenced great friend (whose name has been mentioned altogether too often around here as it is–not this time, dammit!) put up a post yesterday that got me thinking. The post itself is a collection of tips for authors on managing their social media lives along with their work and the like.

The post is very good. What it got me thinking about was certain trends I’d noticed in how people within that circle — we’ll call them “indie authors” (or “IAs”), which I think is the closest thing to an identifying characteristic they have — tend to use Twitter.

The typical IA’s Twitter experience appears to me to be like so (this doesn’t apply to any of the wonderful people named or not-quite-named above, and certainly isn’t true of everyone else by any stretch): he or she has something between 600 and 6,000 followers, and follows almost exactly that many. The vast, vast majority of IA’s tweets are scheduled auto-tweets and append a link to one of three categories of things: (1) to IA’s own most recent blog post; (2) to IA’s book; or (3) to the blog posts or books of people IA knows and is hoping will return the favor. The content of those tweets is the title of the book or article, a related hashtag or two, and the link — there’s nothing to suggest why IA recommends that you click on that particular link (or even that it’s actually recommended, when you think about it) — title, link, maybe hashtags, boom.  And most of the rest of IA’s tweets are curt thank-yous sent out to the other IAs who have recently promoted IA’s blog or book.

This is really weird to me. My 3.5 years of tweeting (I’m here) has mostly been in the tiny and insular world of baseball geeks, where we’re (those of us who write, which is most of us) pretty interested in promoting ourselves too. And there are probably some people who act more or less as the IA described above, but there’s a real conversation there, too, and one feels like these are real people typing things, not scheduled advertisements.

A few disclaimers. First, self-promotion (for authors, and for at least half or so of all other people on Twitter) is a pretty important thing, and promoting others can be a pretty important part of that; I’m not out to knock any of that. And I know a lot of IAs have thought a lot about their social media strategies and whatnot, and I’m sure there are things they’re doing that are very effective.

Which leads into the second disclaimer: I’m not actually that good at Twitter, and I’d never try to tell you there’s a right or wrong way to use it. I haven’t built up a huge number of followers, really. Most people who follow me are baseball fans, and yet I don’t actually tweet about baseball that often, which can’t be advisable. I sometimes get in silly angry fights on Twitter, which are probably literally the most useless things two or more humans can possibly do with themselves.

So I’m not an expert. I don’t think there’s a right way to do it, and if there is one, I certainly don’t know or abide by it. (If that’s what you’re interested in, Chuck Wendig, who is better at it than I am, wrote what I think is a really brilliant list of things to know.)

But I sure do have a lot of fun on Twitter, most of the time. And to my eyes, the typical IA’s way of doing things just doesn’t seem any fun or particularly effective. My sense is that most writers don’t really want to be on Twitter, but look at it as a thing they have to do. And it shows.

So with that in mind, and without wanting to tell anybody the right way do anything, here are some things I think are kind of screwy about the IA tweeting paradigm:

  1. You’re shouting into the void. You follow everyone who follows you, and (for the most part) only those who will follow you back. That means you’re all of you out for the same one thing: exposure. You tend to post much more than you read. So what are the odds that any of the people you follow, who are presumably doing the same things for the same reasons, are reading what you say?
  2. Relatedly: if you follow everyone, you’re following no one. It feels like the nice thing to do, following anyone who follows you, and the surest way to collect a respectable-looking number of followers. And there might be some people who can follow 4000 and still kind of keep up with some of them. I just can’t get my head around it. I’m currently following close to 600, and that’s just about my limit. I try to follow most people who have interesting things to say and seem interested in what I have to say (but certainly haven’t succeeded in getting them all), aiming for a sizable community without overcrowding the field.
    If I get a new follower with like 6000 followers who is also following about 6000, that’s almost a bit of a letdown, because it’s so unlikely that that person will ever see anything I have to say, it’s hard to imagine what the point is. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t appreciate those people, just that I regret not being able to interact with them. And I don’t mean to say that one’s follower/followee ratio is important; I do think having a number of “followees” that you can plausibly, y’know, follow probably is.
  3. No one reads links unless you tell them why they should. That’s not literally true, of course. But linking your blog post with the title alone, unless it’s a great title, isn’t likely to do a ton for you, and linking others’ blog posts (and them linking yours) in a similarly impersonal way does even less. All else equal, I’d much rather have five people who have really read my stuff promoting it and telling people why the person thinks they should read it than have twenty people post a “[Title] [link] by @Bill_TPA [hashtags!]” type of tweet. That reads like spam to me, especially if you’re doing loads of them a day.
  4. Relatedly: personality is a good thing. Whatever else it might be for, finding people you like and who like to talk about things you like to talk about, and then actually talking to them, is probably the greatest, coolest thing anyone can do with Twitter. Drawing followers to you that really enjoy you — the personality you show rather than your potential as a marketing or sales tool for them — can only help them be more likely or engaging readers, customers, promoters and so forth.
  5. The utility of hashtags is pretty limited. They seem like a great idea, # signs in front of the important words to allow people who are interested in those words to go searching and find you. They can be very useful; most pertinent to the IA group, it seems that Kristen Lamb has had quite a lot of success starting conversations with her #MyWANA thing (though it’s sometimes overrun by opportunistic self-serving links, which is what tends to happen, and is part of why the next sentence is true). That’s an exception to the rule, and the rule is that hashtags kind of suck.
    Relatively few people will click on or run searches for, say, “#flowers” or “#mystery” or “#romance,” and most of the people who do probably aren’t going to be looking for tweets like yours. Those terms can all mean many different things in different contexts, so your hypothetical hashtag surfer would have to sort through a lot of crap to get to the specific type of item she’s looking for (which probably isn’t whatever your tweet was about anyway). Twitter isn’t a great place to fish for strangers who are looking for certain terms — and they can always search for those terms without the #, regardless. It seems to me that it’s much more effective to develop an audience that knows you, likes you and is eager to introduce you to an even wider audience…and that #peppering each #tweet with #jarring #hashtags is probably not likely to #encourage #that #kind #of #devotion among them. #hashtags

That’s it, those are my thoughts. I don’t know anything about anything, but I think a few things.

This is already too long (maybe some established IA can write a post on blogging for outsiders with a “Don’t write such dense rambling nonsense!” item), but I’ll leave you with my weekly Promisses image, which has no particular deep thought behind it this week but is really only a slightly creepy-old-uncle-ier version of the real thing:

Promisses No. 3

16 thoughts on “Twitter for Writers (a Sort-of-Outsider’s Perspective) and Promisses No. 3: What to Do with Your Body Parts

  1. Thanks Bill for writing this! I’ve also thought a lot about Twitter, and it seems like a place I have to be, rather than want to be. I doubt whether using Twitter is selling my book, but it does increase my exposure to new people, and amazingly, some of them are very nice! I can’t imagine befriending people on Facebook in the same way. So, as an IA who is learning the ropes, I’m adding my voice (or tweets actually) to this new world. If nothing else, I’m having a bit of fun!

    • Thanks, Ellis! The thing about Twitter is that it’s a wide-open tool that is whatever you choose to make of it, and I tend to bristle at most advice columns and suggestions that there are right and wrong ways to do it…but given that there’s this community that has a specific goal with it (to get to know authors in similar genres, etc., and ultimately to sell books) and I don’t think the way a lot of them are going about it is particularly well-tuned to meeting those goals, I felt like I had to say something. Anyway, I think that first and foremost it should be fun, so I’m glad it’s doing that for you. 🙂

  2. This is a fabulous post, and absolutely true. If I know someone I follow only posts links and RTs of other IA’s links and doesn’t engage, I unfollow at worst, ignore them completely at best. Twitter is a conversational, community-oriented tool that only works when you invest a lot of love. I’m on Twitter because I love it and have met some fantastic humans floating around the Twitter-verse. I use hashtags when there’s a good reason to (at conferences to chat about…the conference…I’ma blow your mind with that one) or to talk about TV shows or do live chats like #SuperWomen on occasion.

    Great post. And thanks for the shoutout! *preens* 😀

    • Thanks, Emmie! Much appreciated, glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, event-specific hashtags and stuff certainly have their place, but I see people hashtag the most common, nondescript words…it’s just puzzling. And distracting.

      And you’re very welcome. Really enjoying your stuff (and chats, etc.) — figured as long as I’m about to (lovingly) criticize a whole group of people, I should start by acknowledging some of my faves. 🙂

  3. Fantastic post, Bill. And geez. It seems like you have some pretty groovy friends. 😉

    I think Twitter is pretty enigmatic to many writers, which is why posts like this one, and Chuck’s, are so important. Many busy writers use auto-share programs, such as Triberr, to save time and maintain a presence on Twitter without having to do much. But we also get not much in return. Personalizing links makes so much sense, and shows that we’ve checked the post out (or hopefully have). Thanks for the useful tips and reminders.

    The only point you made that I view somewhat differently is the use of hashtags. I love ’em (though you’re right–ridiculously overused). They’re great search tools for writers, and I’ve used them for research, to connect with various communities and to stay in the pulse of writers’ conferences and the like—whether I’m able to attend them in person or not. They also help differentiate book-related tweets by genre, which helps.

    Oh, and I also disagree about your Twitter skills. You ARE that good at it.

    • Thank you, total stranger!

      Yeah, that’s a way of phrasing it that I should probably have worked in there…why should I click on this link you’re tweeting at me if my sense is that YOU haven’t even read it? Triberr sounds like it could be really useful (I’ve glanced at it a few times and run away scared), but it could also have the effect of kind of letting you get through things faster without actually getting any value out of the having gotten through.

      It’s a fair point about hashtags. I do like the event-specific ones for conferences and things (as Emmie said above too). I suspect that the more specific they are, the more valuable they are. #amwriting seems like a reasonably useful one, while #writers and #writing will just get you anything and everything. And I think it matters where you put them, too — tagged on at the end is a lot less distracting and looks a lot less amateur-hour than putting five or six of them in the middle of your sentences.

      Ha, thanks. But I’m not. 🙂

  4. Number FOUR. SO. MUCH.

    Yes, I probably just annoyed someone with the all caps, one word non-sentences, but really…personality, for me, is what makes me follow people on Twitter. It’s what makes me check out their blog posts. It’s what makes me go back to their blog again and again even if they aren’t always writing about a topic that interests me.

    I probably don’t promote my work nearly as much as I “should” when I’m on Twitter, but you know what? I like it that way. I like not having a “strategy for engagement”. I just try to genuinely engage.

    That’s why I follow you, and read your blogs. I never feel like I’m just a reader or follower. I’m a person interacting with another interesting human being. That’s the part of Twitter I love.

    I also enjoy misusing hashtags. I’m a rebel like that.

    • Thanks, Amber. All good points.

      I was going to put something in about how I use hashtags if it hadn’t been so long, and if it were easier to explain. I think most of their value is in humor. Something about the way they draw attention to those words (and allow you to smush words together without looking like you don’t understand English) can just be funny sometimes. Like me (not that I’m all that funny, but I entertained myself) making fun of my total ignorance re: hockey.

      Aw, glad to hear that last bit. I love the way your personality comes through on your blog and Twitter, and it’s been great getting to internet-know you a little bit. 🙂

  5. What a great post! I’m home with a sick baby yesterday and today and have mostly been keeping up via my phone. I love Twitter. We have parties on Twitter (seriously), and really good conversations. But it’s an ebb and flow…sometimes up and sometimes down.

    I use Triberr, but mostly as a reader. Then once I read, I personalize and tweet. It’s not a perfect system. But I really don’t understand the notion of putting out something that you haven’t read (and liked). I love getting to promote my pals blogs, especially at a time of day that will get them exposure.

    On the following thing, my thought is this: if you’re nice and look like a groovy peep to interact with, I’m gonna follow you and see how it shakes out. If, after that, you start (a) spamming me or (b) acting like an a-hole, I will unfollow you.

    I’ve met tons of friends on Twitter, and learned a boatload about writing. The links there are mostly fantastic….like attending a writing conference on steroids.

    • Thanks, Jenny! I appreciate your perspective. I’ve recently gotten MORE like that with following…think I’ve added about another 100 over the last month or so just trying to be more welcoming about it. My problem is there are people I really don’t want to miss too much from, and I’ve never figured out lists, so I don’t think I can add as much more as I’d like to or I’ll never be able to keep up. You seem like one of those relatively few who’s making following 3000+ work for you. 🙂

  6. I thought this a very interesting blog post, even more since I only recently joined the Twitter community and still have a lot to learn about it and to find out how useful it can be for me and my books.
    I checked out your blog for a bit and find it very interesting!! I’m curious to read more…

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